Opening up to an Open Marriage

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A couple’s sexual awakening leads them to a uncharted relationship path. Will they make it to the other side?

When Sid and Kai married in 2003. Sid, then a 27-year-old who worked in information technology, was ambivalent to marriage but ended up saying “I do.” Sid, an affectionate and affection-seeking man, someone who entered marriage expecting, if not everlasting passion, at least an enduring physical connection. He was relieved to find, as the years passed, that he still loved his wife — they embraced each time they reunited and they made each other laugh. They had, by all appearances, a happy marriage.

But as with any happy marriage, there were frustrations. Sid liked sex, and not long after they were married, it became clear that Kai’s interest in it had cooled. She thought hers was the normal response. She was raised in a conservative set-up, she would tell Sid, as if that explained it, and she never saw her own parents hold hands, much less embrace. It was not as if she and Sid never had sex, but when they did, Sid often felt lonely in his desire for something more — not necessarily wild but something in which both partners cared about it.

Kai, baffled by Sid’s disappointment, often wondered how great does sex have to be for a person to be happy? Sid on the other hand wondered, if he had the right to be disappointed. Occasionally, when he decided the answer was yes, Sid would think about a radical possibility, i.e., an open marriage. He did get himself a few times to share this with Kai but everything sounded so outlandish, illogical. But they continued on, celebrating anniversaries, going out for occasional dinners and dropping their growing son and daughter to school; and they felt gratitude for those children and fondness for each other alongside bouts of dissatisfaction. Kai picked up some work in recruitment she could do from home. And then, one day in March 2016, when she was 38 and Sid 40, Kai learned she had depression.Kai was still youthful, a student of yoga, a former Bharatnatyam dancer, her hair long, dark and wavy. But she felt ever-present challenge to get herself to do something, more importantly like something. Be happy — which the therapist recommended, to reverse the onset — became a mission, an act of defiance and a source of physical pleasure. She joined various interest-based groups, fighting off fear with new friends. She wanted to “be happy,” as she put it, and she wanted Sid to rally around. But after long weeks of work, Sid was tired on weekends.

In one of the photography meet-ups Kai met a man, Paddy. They got chatting and Paddy shared, surprisingly in the first meeting itself, about his bouts with depression. He asked her to coffee once, and then a second time. They understood something profound about each other but also barely knew each other, which allowed for a lightness between them, pure fun in the face of everything. They met once more, and that afternoon, in the parking lot of a famous South Delhi Mall, he kissed her beside his car, someone else’s mouth on hers for the first time in 13 years. It did occur to her to resist. But hadn’t Sid wanted an open marriage? Kai did not announce that the friendship was turning romantic, but she did not deny it either, when Sid, uneasy with the frequency of her visits with Paddy, confronted her. He was suddenly an outsider in his own marriage. This was not at all what Sid had in mind when he spoke of open marriage. They had not agreed on anything.

“It was more like: This is what I’m doing — deal with it.”

Kai’s intransigence, and Sid’s disillusionment, had brought them into couples therapy. After several sessions, which seemed to be deadlocked, the therapist told them in early September 2016 that she thought they were most likely heading for divorce. It was the first time the word seemed a clear option.
She told him, that night, that she was ready to give up the relationship with Paddy if Sid could not make peace with it. “She was suddenly able to talk about it calmly, and kindly,” Sid said. “Suddenly my needs mattered again.” As soon as he felt that she cared about his well-being, he was able to consider what she wanted. “When I had no say in the matter, I was miserable,” Sid said. “When I could say no, suddenly it was — O.K. This opening of our marriage started to seem less like something that was being done to me, and more like something we were doing together.”

For several nights following that therapy session, they talked in their bedroom, with an attention they had not given each other in years, sitting on the rug next to their bed. The sex, too, was different, more varied, as if reflecting the inventing going on in their marriage. Kai was still someone’s wife, still her children’s mother, but now she was also somebody’s girlfriend, desired and desiring; now her own marriage was also new to her. In due course, Kai had already received Sid’s permission to keep seeing Paddy. Sid was contemplating how he might meet someone. Their marriage had already strained to accommodate another person, someone whom Kai would meet while Sid was at work, whom she texted in the car while her husband drove. They had to consider the possibility that the marriage’s resiliency might not withstand the challenges of adding another romance, another person. But, Sid was past the point of fear.
Sid was going through an inflexion point, unable to resist what was going on within yet there was no one he could talk to and share. Open marriages are still considered a taboo. How could any married person be comfortable with, or encouraging of, a spouse’s extramarital sex? This question could move society by seismic proportions.

Kai encouraged Sid to invest more effort in meeting someone. She wanted the marriage to feel balanced, and she also wanted him to experience what she was feeling — that new vigour. One night after work, Sid has dining with his two colleagues on a roof top restaurant. Seated next to them were two women – classily dressed and around late thirties or early forties if make-up to be ignored. They requested Sid’s friend if he could take their snaps to which he obliged. “What about us”, quipped Sid. Soon, tables were joined and more alcohol were ordered. He was in the company of at least one woman who was interested in open marriage. They decided to meet. Two days later, they decided to meet at a local bar. They were still making awkward conversation at a bar when a woman sitting nearby asked how long they had been together. Sid and his date exchanged glances; Sid shrugged, as if to say: “Go ahead.” “He’s married to someone else,” his date said. “I’m married to someone else. We’re on our first date.” That broke the ice. Drinks flowed, and around midnight, Sid found himself in a Toyota Corolla, kissing a woman who was not his wife for the first time in 13 years.

The option for more was obvious, but Sid dropped his date to her hotel and thanked her for a lovely evening, said he’d be in touch and went home, feeling uncomfortable with both what had happened and what had not. It took a few days before he landed on the right metaphor for his experience. “You know that circus elephant who has the chain around its leg when it’s an infant, and it grows up and they take the chain off, but the elephant doesn’t know life without it — so it still doesn’t go anywhere anyway?” he said. “I noticed that the chain isn’t there, but I really don’t know what to do with that.”
Open relationships, as against monogamy, pivoted on no sex outside of marriage rule, may sound like the more unfettered choice, but the first thing non-monogamous couples often do is draw up a list of guidelines: rules about protection, about the number of days a week set aside for dates, about how much information to share. Some spouses do not want to know any details about the other spouse’s extramarital sex, while for others, those stories are a thrilling side benefit.

Lately things had cooled down between Sid and his date. Perhaps, fact that she was from a different city, added to that. But Sid, now more aware of his unchained existence, texted her. As destiny would have it, she was planning a trip to Delhi next week. So, they decided to meet again. At dinner, the woman told him about her past relationships, her worries about her children; he offered some advice and liked feeling that, although she heard him, she did not seem to need his help. She asked if he would mind if she moved her chair from across the table to sit beside him; she wanted to be closer.

After dinner they went back to her hotel. “Are you naked yet?” she texted her husband around 10 — it was a joke, a poke, a bit of bravado. He was not. But by 11, her new romantic interest was.

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